Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Skinned alive

What constitutes a fulfilled day? For some it's achieving one simple goal, like exercising a little bit every day. For others, it's achieving a multitude of simple goals. Some are consumed by their work, thinking about their goals even when they are not doing anything. Welcome to my world...

Cue the Obsessed Piano Girl, who lives to willingly sacrifice hours of her life over just minutes of precious music. Today, a couple weeks after giving concerts and having a slightly-above-sufficient break, she can be seen practicing with a (mostly) unwavering, expressionless concentration. There's a half-eaten cupcake on one side of the piano, a cup of coffee on the other, and all around a mess of miscellaneous papers, several to-do lists, and score notes that looks like a tiny ecological disaster - all the hallmarks of someone mentally absorbed.

I remember how an important realization dawned on me in the most obvious way when I was younger: a dead man is a living man's slave. This may sound silly at first, but think about it - a living man is free to paint whatever image he wishes of a dead man without any fear of rebuttal. For example, it became okay for Lady Hope to make it look like Charles Darwin "repented" at his deathbed in front of her, regretting the presentation of his theory of evolution and apologizing to God for being too science-y in general. Since Darwin was too dead to deny it, the fact that this didn't happen, let alone the fact that Darwin didn't really know Lady Hope, became just a tiny inconvenience that could be thrown right out the window. Fast-forward to today, Uncyclopedia has made dead-shaming a funny sport, claiming that Bartok flushed Debussy down the toilet (quite an impressive feat, even for someone like Bartok) and that both Berg and Webern would've killed to have a sizzling hot love affair with Schoenberg. Isn't it fun to regard facts as useless and just make life up? Hey, at least they have the humility to call themselves "the content-free encyclopedia" - people like Lady Hope didn't. 

Some people might suggest that a performer is a composer's slave, doomed to do his/her bidding, but I'd say just the opposite. As a performer, I'd say you become a de facto "dead man's master" when reproducing the works of composers. Sure, if the composer is still alive and you get to collaborate with him/her (a rare scenario), then fair idea exchange occurs (far from servitude), but in the absence of composers, you are automatically assuming authority over them, in terms of interpretation, style and thought. It's up to you whether to use this power for good or evil. The greatness of your interpretation depends on how informed you are of both the composer's ideas and your own, and the decisions you make to reconcile the two equally. This leads to a virtual Tom and Jerry-style relationship with the composer that lasts for weeks on end. Your move, Beethoven.

Recently, one of many personal experiences of this occurred for me, while working on the Hammerklavier sonata. In the first movement, there is an extremely creepy part that modulates to B major right before the recap. It's almost downright eerie if played in the right mood, especially because of the E minor parallel created through the flat sixth harmonies. For audio, click here and forward the video to 6:20...

 I played this piece for Mr. David Louie a couple months back, and he told me that Beethoven was deeply afraid of both B major and B minor and the B major part is an instance of the composer overcoming one of his biggest fears. This information gave me more insight into Beethoven's intent for that part and how much it meant to him, which inspired me to play it in such a way that it scares the hell out of people.

Here's a fact that only a music nerd would tell you: Radiohead's song Creep features the exact same B major/flat sixth exchange on the word "weirdo". Check it out hereI'm not surprised at all. Great musicians get weird alike...

From my experience, creepiness is a fringe emotion that somehow makes it into every composition, and usually requires more attention from the player in order to make the piece super-cool. Each composer displays it, albeit quite differently - one just has to look for it. Ligeti is a great example as a polar opposite to Beethoven. While Beethoven becomes soft, withdrawn, and plaintively scary, Ligeti gets loud, unabashed, and macabre. You could say that Beethoven's creepiness is like befriending a disturbingly shy weird kid out of pity, who later hugs you and softly whispers "I'm going to kill you in your sleep" into your ear, while Ligeti's is like a relentless, bloodthirsty axe murderer wearing noisy, spiked shoes pursuing you up a dark iron staircase leading to nowhere.

But I don't think that any work's creepiness could possibly surpass that of Omar Daniel's The Flaying of Marsyas. Click on the link to listen to it. Unfortunately, I left a copy of the score I had in Toronto and couldn't find it anywhere on the internet. This piece requires utmost dedication to the composer's vision, if a performer ever wants to play it. If Beethoven and Ligeti's creepiness makes you feel like running away as quickly as possible, this piece will make you want to down three fingers of whiskey in order to blot out the sheer force of (literally) head-over-heels bizarro, and then run away as quickly as possible.

So this piece is written for a violinist and a "suspended musician with live electronics" (Confused? Don't worry, I'll get to that in just a second). It is based on Titian's painting "The Flaying of Marsyas", depicting the legendary Greek flautist Marsyas who had challenged Apollo to a music contest. The condition of the contest was that the winner can do whatever he pleases to the loser. Marsyas won the first round, but in the second round Apollo tried to turn the tables and started to sing while playing his lyre. Marsyas lost his shit at this, and argued that this was totes unfair for an instrumental competition (a stance with which I completely concur), but Apollo somehow justified himself by likening his use of breath to make music with Marsyas' use of breath to play his flute (logic, right? Right?!). The Muses, who were judging the contest, viewed that as an adequate explanation and rewarded Apollo for his sneaky creativity, ultimately crowning him the winner. Now, he could have been content with making Marsyas pay him a couple hundred bucks like everyone else who loses a bet, but nooooo - he had to order him to be tied upside down to a tree and skinned alive, or flayed, as punishment for his pride. The Ancient Greeks actually thought his treatment was well deserved. Moral: it's perfectly okay to be a twisted psychopath as long as you're a god. 

Anyways, much to my surprise (and consequently yours), the "suspended musician" is literally meant to be suspended - stripped down to the waist and tied upside down, just like Marsyas, on a 
contraption resembling the monkey bars at a playground, which the composer named a "rack". He's also supposed to wear electromagnetic sensors on his wrists, and move them closer to the sensors on the rack to make a harsh, grating sound unlike anything I've ever heard. At certain points in the piece, it sounds like extremely long fingernails being raked down a slate chalkboard. As painful as they seem (sorry for making you imagine this), these sounds effectively convey the pain of Marsyas' cruel ordeal. While the "suspended musician" cavorts on the rack to create the sounds, the violinist (representing Apollo, perhaps?) stands and plays jarring, dissonant melodies while laughing maniacally, because how can you NOT laugh maniacally if you're playing the violin while watching someone writhe upside down and almost black out from too much blood to the brain?

Usually, for all music, the amount of physical fitness required to play a piece never surpasses the amount of musical skill required. For this piece, it's just the opposite. Practically anyone could operate the electronics, provided they are physically fit enough to remain upside down for the duration of the piece (about fifteen minutes). Even though the composer himself takes on the role of the "suspended musician" (phew), the most evil thing I can imagine is if two violinists were assigned this piece - how would they decide who plays which part? Most likely fight it out in another psychopathic music contest...

How far can someone go in order to explain a composer's vision? Unlike The Flaying of Marsyas, where what the composer wants to project is clearly delineated in form of theatrics, most compositions are rife with grey areas, sources for many arguments about interpretation. So far, my creed is to try my best to showcase the sentiments of the composers I play, without sweating the small stuff or losing my own vision. There are many deluded idolaters who vehemently insist that the performer should completely surrender to the demands of the composer, and subsequently give up their identity to take on the composer's image. They talk of a "universal vision", an idea that music isn't anything to do with the performer but an entity encompassing the world. The performer's role is nothing more to them than that of a mindless vessel in which the composer and his ideas should feed like a parasite.

These individuals can usually be identified a mile away: Cadillac-driving, uppity creatures who still reek of sherry drunk god knows how long ago at concert receptions, and whose ears lie to them constantly, assuring them that Cortot's Chopin etudes are perfectly clean and Lang Lang is a disgrace to music. How will performers bring something fresh to the table if they constantly feel the need to quash their signature ideas of interpretation, and play with the weight of the "universe" on their shoulders? The greats of the past would not have become so great if all they did was sit around scratching their heads finding ways to kill their own instincts of how pieces should be played in testament to the aphorism "honor thy composer". Though it is paramount to musically empathize with the composer's feelings and wishes as described on the score, it should not become a dogged chore. Much like my experience with the Hammerklavier, it should be a fun as well as enlightening experience to fuse composers' ideas with your own - not a Sisyphean state of permanent subservience leading to a kind of masochistic martyrdom.

Having written all this, I look around the room. There's still a mess to clean up, and pages upon pages of music to learn. I wonder what new musical conundrums I will face this coming year...

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